Welcome back! In Part 1 of My Ultimate Tips and Tricks for Cruising with your Family, we covered:
- How a Cruise Works
- What to Consider When Picking a Ship
- Booking and Pricing
- Flight Tips
- Some Differences Among Ships
And more! Definitely go back to read part one if you haven’t yet!
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Today we’ll be going over all the FUN onboard, including what you can expect from: rooms, food and drink, ship activities, port excursions, and more. My hope is to share all of the insight I've gained from nearly a dozen different cruise experiences to help you plan a great vacation for your own family if you are looking to cruise in the future!
CRUISE SHIP FOOD & DRINKS
First, let’s talk about FOOD! Cruise fare includes dining, and that’s kind of the best thing ever when you’re traveling with EIGHT kids! (Unlimited ice cream? Heck yes!)
Now of course the food and dining experience is going to vary depending on which ship you’ve opted for. Generally, though, food is included as well as basic water and lemonade. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are covered while you’re at sea! There will be a main dining room or a buffet, and there may also be separate casual eateries around the ship.
As for the food quality? Our family can’t complain! We’ve always been totally happy with all of the meal options on our cruise vacations, though if you are a next-level foodie and the cuisine is one of the most important factors for you, then I would suggest seeking out a cruise known for its celebrity chef michelin-starred dining experiences. (Yes, those exist!)
Dinner is usually served in pre-set time blocks. One dinner service for the early eaters, one in the middle, and one for late-night diners. The buffet is usually always open if the pre-set times don’t work for you. And oftentimes room service is also included should you want to forego the banquet room altogether!
Pro Tip: Sign up for reserved dinner time! This is what has worked best for our family, and we prefer an earlier dinner time. Usually there will be an early dinner (maybe 5:30pm) and a later option (7:30pm) with a third option to just show up and wait for a table to open. The early dinner schedule works for us because you’re usually back on the boat after docking at a port around 4:00pm. You have time to shower and get ready for dinner, get to dinner at 5:30 and enjoy your meal, and then make it to a show or some kind of entertainment from 7pm on. That’s just what works for our family right now!
I personally have had a great experience with requesting certain modifications to meal items because of my very restrictive diet (another topic for another day!). They are usually so great about offering vegetarian or low-sodium options, and gluten-free is now becoming a standard menu option as well. Just be sure to share any dietary restrictions you have with your travel agent or your waiter ahead of time, and more often than not they are able to accommodate you! I like to befriend any waitstaff we have onboard and learn their personal favorites, which leads to some amazing food recommendations we might not have tried otherwise!
Drinks outside of water and lemonade are NOT included and unlimited. You can pay a la carte for drinks, or you can purchase a “drink package.” There are multiple options for types of packages that vary in price. If you are a soda or alcohol drinker, it would make sense to buy a drink package rather than pay a la carte for each drink you order. Each soda can be $4-$6 each plus gratuity which will quickly add up and would be cheaper in the long run to have pre-bought a package.
There's always a mid-grade package that allows unlimited sodas and non-alcoholic drinks, including mocktails like virgin pina coladas (YES PLEASE!). My recommendation is if you are going to get a drink package, 10,000% buy it BEFORE you get on the boat! They usually send out a special deal about a week before your cruise date. I’ve seen them offer 40% off drink packages if you order it before you get on the cruise AND they bundle it with wifi! When you order drinks in a package, it includes gratuity so you don’t need to tip per beverage you take. Definitely look into the drink package options before you take off.
CRUISE SHIP CABINS (ROOMS)
Rooms on cruise ships are referred to as “cabins” or “staterooms.” They are similar to a hotel room, with your bed(s) and en suite bathroom. You also use a keycard to access your room, which is stocked with all of the staples like a hair dryer, safe, a television, and basic toiletries.
There’s quite a price difference among your cabin selections! Basic interior rooms are the most affordable, but many prefer the added splurge of a balcony to get that view of the water at all times. Our favorite rooms are balcony rooms; however, they dramatically increase the travel expense so we opt for interior rooms when we travel with our kids. Honestly, when you’re on board with kids you are so rarely in your room that having a basic option is no big deal.
An interior room will not include a window or a view. A mid-level class of cabins would be “ocean view” which includes a window or porthole to see out, but does not include any outdoor seating area. A balcony cabin will include a sliding door from your room to a little balcony looking outward with some seating furniture.
Pro Tip: One thing that Royal Caribbean started doing that’s awesome is called ‘Royal Up’. A few weeks before your cruise, they will email you and ask if you want to be in a ‘Royal Up’ lottery. That means they have extra rooms in nicer categories, and it’s essentially a lottery system to upgrade your stay! These categories could be balcony, suite, ocean view. Royal Caribbean asks upcoming passengers, “how much are you willing to pay to be entered into lottery?” I always bid the minimum. But we still have gotten the upgrade, AND for a fraction of the cost it would have been if I booked that room category to begin with! So always look for that option. It’s risk-free, so if you don’t win the upgrade then you are not charged any additional fees.
PORT DAYS & EXCURSIONS
Ahh, port days! Land at last!
Between the days at sea spent entirely on the ship and surrounded by ocean, you have Port Days! The cruise ship docks at a port and passengers have the opportunity to debark and explore the local area. Typically you have between 5-9 hours. Of course you are not required to leave the ship during the entire duration, but it is definitely a welcomed event for our family of 10 to get our land legs and play on a beach! Keep your cruise card and photo ID with you to get on and off the ship!
It is very popular to book excursions during port days. Excursions can be any tourist activity from zip-lining to kayaking to touring a pineapple plantation. They can be booked ahead of time directly through the cruise line or you can find a local company right at the port as they wait for cruise ship tourists.
So there’s two ways to look at it: If you want to do excursions, there are benefits to booking them through the cruise ship ahead of time. They make is so easy and allow you to book them right in their app. However, you will end up paying a higher total fee for the excursion. You are essentially paying for the convenience. But they handle the details and itinerary and logistics for you. By policy, the boat will never leave you behind if you have an excursion that is running late but was booked through the cruise line. So you are also paying for peace of mind and security.
Another benefit of booking the excursions you are interested in ahead of time is that you secure your entire family’s spots. Sometimes by the time you get on the boat and are headed to a specific port, many of the excursion spots are completely booked. So how we typically do it – we will maybe choose 1 excursion to splurge on per trip because they do cost extra on top of your cruise fare and they typically are in the ballpark of $100 per person. (Family of 10 here, you do the math…..)
When we cruise with kids, we don’t need to do a ton of excursions. The activities on the boat and then playing on the beach is more than enough for them. The rest of the time, we get off the boat at the port and just see what we can find to do for free! Oftentimes there is a beautiful beach and our kids love to swim in the ocean or build sandcastles while we soak up the sun and play with them. There’s typically always shopping and restaurants right there near the port, so you can just explore what’s available to you when you dock and make up your adventure as you go!
MY MISCELLANEOUS CRUISE TIPS & HACKS
You can imagine I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks along the way as I’ve traveled on nearly a dozen cruises over the last several years, so here are my final miscellaneous reminders and tips for you as you plan your own vacation!
- Check in and get to the port EARLY. They will most likely let you on the boat even earlier than your scheduled time to board! This saves you time standing in line with everyone else and allows you to explore the ship with less crowds!
- If you have kids that are old enough to wander the boat without you, bring WALKIE TALKIES!! That’s right, old school walkie talkies because guess what? Unless they have their own cell phone that you have to pay for wifi on, how else will you get ahold of them?! We use walkie talkies to communicate with our older kiddos and we love it. My favorite walkie talkies are linked on my Amazon list here!
- Cruise ships have life vests that you can use on the boat in the pools. BUT you typically cannot take them off the boat to use them in the ocean when you’re at port. So bring floaties if needed!
- Personal preference: I think kids ages 6 and up are the best to take on cruises. I’ve traveled with kids younger than 3 on a cruise and it just isn't as enjoyable for parents AND kids until they are around 4-6, able to go to the kids club.
- Motion Sickness: Bubba has an inner ear issue, and motion sickness is something he has to deal with for cruises. We’ve combatted it with a prescription for a patch that he puts behind his ear and it has helped him with his sea sickness. If you are sensitive to it, try asking your doctor about a prescription for motion sickness remedies!
- Sign up for the cruise line’s emails and just watch for their sales. They do occasionally send their email list sales, especially during off season.
- There are no cell phone towers in the middle of the ocean (shocker!) so your cell phone will not work while at sea. But you download the cruise line’s app, so Royal Caribbean for instance, and then it also allows you to pay for wifi (which is expensive because it’s charged per person per day).
Alright, there you have it – my ultimate cruising tips as a mom of eight! I hope you learned a few things for planning your own family vacation but leave any questions you have below in a comment!
Looking for more travel hacks and family vacation tips? Check out these other blog posts!
- If you're taking a road trip with kids, read all our great entertainment ideas for the car!
- A vacation might not be in this year's budget, but a STAYCATION can be!
- All my fave CHEAP travel hacks for seeing the world on a budget!
I’m wondering how old you kids need to be that you will trust them to be on their own with walkie-talkies on the boat. I’ve got 3 kids, 13, 11, and 11 and I’ve been trying to decide how much independence to give them on a cruise boat.
Great question! We encourage every parent to use their best judgment because nobody knows YOUR kids better than you! That being said, our kids are pretty responsible and independent and have quite a bit of experience cruising. We trust them to have some independence on a boat without us starting around 8 years old, as long as they are paired up in a buddy system. We also created some parameters, like they must always have a buddy; they must always have a walkie talkie; they must tell us where they are going and check in with us at least once every hour. If they move locations, they need to let us know. Hope this helps!